If you’re still with me (I don’t think I’ve ever covered a trip in as much detail), you’ve finally made it to the last post! Our final destination, the shining gem of California’s Golden Coast – San Francisco. Unfortunately for us though, there wasn’t really anything shiny about it. After the beautiful weather in Oregon, the sun deserted us and we spent three days on San Francisco’s foggy shore.
In hopes that the sun would peak its way out, we made the mistake of wearing shorts and t-shirt on our first day in the city and experienced a windy, cold tour of the city and crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge. But we’re all troopers and after a quick stop back to our hostel to change into some warmer clothes, we made the most of our short time in San Francisco. We took a whirlwind bus tour of the city, jumping off at San Francisco’s more popular attractions: the ever busy Fisherman’s Wharf, the steep, winding Lombard Street, and of course, Pier 39, home to hundreds of noisy and entertaining sea lions! We also stopped at the Golden Gate Vista in hopes of catching a glimpse of the bright arches of one of the world’s most famous suspension bridges, but they were sadly hidden in the fog and we had to settle for just a glimpse of the bottom.
While there’s lots to see in the city, the highlight of our time in San Francisco ended up being a visit to the infamous Alcatraz prison (surely this place must have been JK Rowlings inspiration for Azkaban?). In case you don’t know, Alcatraz is a former federal prison located on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Often referred to as “The Rock”, it was open from 1933 to 1963 and housed some of America’s most notorious criminals. Due to the harsh environment in which the prison was located and the high operating costs, it was eventually closed and now operates as a tourist attraction and national park. We took a boat across the windy bay and did an audio tour of the Alcatraz cell house.
I have to give props to the makers of the audio tour because it was one of the best audio tours I’ve ever taken. The tour featured testimonies from several previous guards and inmates and provided a detailed history of the cellhouse and its famous prisoners and escapes. Our favourite tale of escape was that of several inmates who collected various tools (mostly spoons) and over the course of who knows how long, chipped away at the concrete around the air vent in their cells until they were large enough to crawl through. They made makeshift vents out of cardboard and other materials to hide the damage to the wall, and they created fake heads out of clay to put in their beds during the night of their escape to fools the guards. The inmates eventually escaped from their cells to a long utility corridor between the walls, where they climbed up the pipes and onto the roof. From there, they escaped on a life raft they made out of rain jackets! The prisoners were never found – it’s very unlikely that the raft or their bodies would not have been found if they had drowned – so it’s pretty likely that they successfully escaped!
To our surprise, when we finished the tour and were perusing the bookstore, we discovered that an actual former inmate of Alcatraz, William Baker, was on site promoting and signing his new book on his time in Alcatraz! Gill and Mel both purchased a copy and had the somewhat surreal experience of smiling and posing for a picture with Mr. Baker. I didn’t read the book myself, but if you’re wondering, I’ve been informed by Gill that Mr. Baker originally went to prison for car theft. If he’d done the time he was sentenced for, he would have been out of prison in 4 years, but after multiple escape attempts he was eventually transferred to Alcatraz and ended up spending the majority of his life (he was only released in 2011 and is in his 80’s) in prison.
Lucky for us, our visit to Alcatraz ended up being a huge pick-me-up after a slightly disappointing, and very cold morning. I would definitely recommend a visit if you’re ever in San Francisco, just make sure to get your tickets a few months in advance or you’ll have no hope of going. Since you have to take a boat there, there’s only a limited number of tickets.
Sadly, Mel was only able to spend one day with us in San Francisco and then had to jet off to attend a wedding. We were sad to see her go, but enjoyed a beautiful trip to Napa Valley on our second day! It was another foggy start to the day, but as soon as we left the Bay area behind us, the sun came out and the day quickly brightened up! Napa Valley is California’s premier wine region and was incredibly beautiful. We started off with a drive through the Sonoma Region and over the course of the day visited three wineries. The first two were small boutique wineries that produce a few thousand bottles of wine per year, which are only sold at their winery. The last winery produces several million bottles per year and we thought it was nice to have the contrast of visiting both types. We had an enjoyable afternoon tasting the different wines and being taught much more than I ever needed to know about how to properly open and drink wine!
Our last day in San Francisco was a bit of a freebie. We were originally going to spend our last day in Santa Cruz, but because we had to switch up the order of the trip when we missed Yosemite, we ended up having an extra day. We started the morning off right with a delicious Sunday brunch from the Cheesecake Factory, did a little shopping, and then split up for the afternoon. Karen spent the afternoon doing some shopping and exploring around Union Square, Gill made a visit to a childhood icon of hers, the ‘Full House’ house, and I walked through the city up to Coit Tower where I finally caught a full view of the Golden Gate Bridge! It was a more relaxing day and the sun finally came out for our last few hours in the city.
That pretty much sums up our trip of America’s West Coast. We returned to Vancouver just over a week ago and Gill stuck around for a few extra days. Karen won’t be going back to Newfoundland at all though as she’s been accepted to study law at UBC, so you might be hearing more about her in my future exploits! I hope you enjoyed taking this journey with us – it was the trip of a lifetime for us and I loved sharing it!